By Lothrop Stoddard
[The Century Magazine, December 1918]
Bulgaria's withdrawal from the Teutonic block and her frank capitulation to the Allies is easily the most dramatic episode of the World War. Almost overnight the massive bridge of "Mitteleuropa" has crumbled at its central span, leaving exhausted Turkey foredoomed to speedy surrender and laying distracted Austria open to the combined assaults of Allied arms and domestic revolution. So stupendous are the possibilities flowing from the Allies' September offensive in Macedonia that we are almost tempted to believe that the age of miracles is come again.
Yet in such hours we should clarify our vision by insistent remembrance of Clausewitz's famous saying that war is but the extension of politics. For brilliant as was the Franco-Serbian escalade of mid-September, storming successive mountain walls as though they were mere trench lines and shearing through war-hardened Bulgarian divisions like a knife through rotten cheese, there was more than fighting involved. For the last year and even longer a combination of circumstances had been weaning Bulgaria from her former solidarity with the Central powers, and this disruptive process, proceeding with 'special rapidity during the last few months, had been steadily sapping the morale of the Bulgarian people and the war-spirit of the Bulgarian soldiery. From the broader point of view, therefore, the Allies' Macedonian offensive must be deemed not merely a skilful military operation, but even more a well-timed garnering of fruits ripe for the plucking. In such masterly combinations of strategy and politics lies the secret of decisive victory.
The accurate gaging by Allied statesmanship of Bulgaria's political evolution is specially noteworthy because that evolution was both complicated and obscure. In fact, its roots reach down to the fundamental aspirations of the Bulgarian people. Bulgaria's present volte-face is no chance product of panic, but a logical step in her national policy. Its consequences thus promise to be not ephemeral, but lasting. An understanding of the factors that brought about the existing situation is therefore worth careful study.
The Bulgarians have often been called the Prussians of the Balkans, and in this characterization there is a large measure of truth. A hard-working, tenacious folk, capable of great patience, docile to iron discipline, and appreciative of governmental efficiency, the material progress made by the Bulgarians during their forty years of independence is as striking in its way as the similar progress of the German people. Unfortunately, the Bulgarians resemble the Prussians not only in their virtues, but in their most unlovely qualities as well. There are the same tactlessness, brutality, overweening ambition, and cynical indifference to the means by which those ambitions are to be attained. This has shown itself clearly throughout Bulgarian history. When Bulgaria gained her independence of Turkey in 1878 she started with a perfectly legitimate ambition, the attainment of Bulgarian race unity through the annexation of those Bulgar-inhabited portions of Macedonia that remained under Turkish rule. For this the Bulgarian people toiled and taxed themselves without stint. For this they built up a military machine relatively the most formidable on earth.
But that was by no means the whole story. Race-unity may have been the goal for which the simple Bulgarian peasant drilled and delved. His leaders had more grandiose projects in view. This was specially true of the Bulgarian monarch, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a man of great political sagacity, but of a cynical unscrupulousness rivaling Machiavelli's "Prince." Ferdinand's dream was a great Bulgarian empire embracing the entire Balkan Peninsula, with its seat at Constantinople and his exalted self occupying the imperial throne. This implied both the expulsion of the Turks from Europe and the subjugation of the other Christian Balkan peoples. In the Balkan War of 1912 Bulgaria's hour seemed to have struck, but Ferdinand for once overplayed his hand, and Bulgaria's Balkan rivals beat her on the battle-field and forced her to the humiliating Peace of Bukharest in 1913.
The Peace of Bukharest was not a constructive settlement. It was an attempt on the part of embittered enemies to punish Bulgaria's ambitions and keep her permanently down. The result was most unfortunate. Playing upon their balked desire for race-unity, Ferdinand bound his subjects to his wider imperialistic designs. Raging under their humiliations and their failure to redeem their Macedonian brethren, the Bulgarians declared themselves ready to league with the devil if they might thereby tear up the Bukharest parchment and revenge themselves upon their enemies.
The opportunity was not long in coming. The Pan-German devil was already preparing his stroke for world dominion, and when the blow fell in 1914, Bulgaria's alinement was almost a foregone conclusion. The military losses in the recent Balkan Wars had of course so weakened her that cautious diplomatic jockeying was a preliminary necessity, but when Russia had succumbed to Hindenburg's hammer-strokes in the summer of 1915 and the Germanic hosts menaced Serbia in the autumn, Bulgaria threw off the mask, struck Serbia from the rear, and joined the Teutonic powers. Thus did the "Berlin-Bagdad" dream grow into solid fact, and Mitteleuropa become a hard reality.
There can be no question that when Bulgaria entered the war on the Teutonic side in the autumn of 1915 she did so with the hearty assent of the vast majority of her people. The Germans had promised Bulgaria those things which Bulgarians most desired. A Teutonic alliance offered Bulgaria immediate possession of Serbian Macedonia, where lived the bulk of the Bulgarian element still outside Bulgaria's political frontiers, together with the practical destruction of the Serbian arch-enemy. The Teutonic alliance likewise offered prospects of reclaiming the Bulgarian populations of Greek Macedonia and of the southern Dobrudja, annexed by Rumania, in 1913, should Greece and Rumania, both notoriously pro-Ally, strike in on the Entente side. Lastly, the German Government agreed to use its good offices with its ally, Turkey, to obtain for Bulgaria a Turkish cession of the Demotika district of Thrace west of the Maritza River, thereby giving Bulgaria direct railroad communication with Dedeagatch, her one practicable outlet on the Aegean Sea. All these things presently came to pass. Serbia lay crushed, and Serbian Macedonia was under Bulgarian control before the close of 1915. Turkey soon yielded Demotika. In the spring of 1916 the quarrel between the Greek King Constantine and the Entente powers permitted Bulgaria to occupy the coveted Drama-Serres-Kavala districts of Greek Macedonia, while that same autumn Rumania's intervention on the Allied side resulted in her speedy defeat, with Bulgarian troops overrunning the whole Dobrudja as far as the Danube mouth, and Bulgarian regiments triumphantly parading through the street of Bukharest. Small wonder that up to the close of 1916 Bulgaria remained a loyal member of Mitteleuropa, thoroughly contented with her bargain.
The year 1917, however, saw the beginning of that estrangement from Germany which has finally caused Bulgaria's abandonment of the Teutonic cause. The first rift in the lute was the Russian Revolution. This event was a great shock to Ferdinand and the Sofia politicians. When Bulgaria had joined Germany in the autumn of 1915 her political leaders had divined the fact that Russia's war spirit was broken by the crushing defeats inflicted upon her by the Germans and that she would ultimately retire from the war. But Sofia had looked forward to a Russian retirement under imperial auspices and thereafter to a Russo-German rapprochement in which Bulgaria should be the connecting-link, extracting a profitable brokerage by playing off one against the other in Balkan affairs. The idea was subtle, yet not without reason when we remember that it was toward this very state of things that the last czarist governments of Stürmer and Golytzin were feeling their way. However, Bulgarian expectations were completely dashed by the credo of Revolutionary Russia, which renounced imperialism and eschewed all those near-Eastern ambitions which had been the watchword of the old regime. Now, Bulgaria did not like the new situation. For though Russia was definitely out of the Balkans, Germany and Austria were emphatically not, and their weight was too heavy to be borne pleasantly even by their friends. It was one thing for Bulgaria to be the connecting link of Mitteleuropa, with mighty Russia always potentially present to redress the balance. It was quite another matter to be just the link. That this was to be Bulgaria's future role in Mitteleuropa, Germany's new attitude made increasingly plain. The progressive disintegration of Russia through 1917 riveted Teutonic domination on the Balkans and even offered Germany alternative routes to the East. This meant that Germany no longer needed to show Bulgaria special consideration, and what that fact implied to Teutonic minds was quickly shown by the series of bitter disillusionments that Bulgaria had to experience.
The first shock came regarding the Dobrudja. When the Teuton-Bulgar armies had swept the Rumanians out of the Dobrudja at the close of 1916, Bulgaria had expected to acquire the entire peninsula. But Germany soon showed that she had other ideas on the matter. The Dobrudja not only controlled the mouth of the Danube, but also contained the port terminus of the main railroad trunk-line from Central Europe to the Black Sea. These things Germany had no intention of placing in Bulgarian hands. Accordingly, Bulgaria was given only the southern Dobrudja, the rest of the peninsula being held "in common." And when in the spring of 1918 Russia's final collapse forced Rumania to make peace with the Central powers, it was to them, and not to Bulgaria, that Rumania ceded the Dobrudja prize. Of course Germany temporized, and extended the Dobrudja "condominium" until the final peace settlement, but Bulgaria could see with half an eye that her hopes in this quarter would never be realized.
A second shock was presently administered by Turkey. In return for Bulgaria's extension of territory in the southern Dobrudja, Turkey demanded compensation by Bulgaria's retrocession of the Demotika district of Thrace. This district, it will be remembered, was vital to Bulgaria's railway communications with her Aegean seaboard. Bulgaria therefore angrily rejected the proposal, Turkey as vehemently insisted, and by the beginning of 1918 a very pretty quarrel was on between the two allies, culminating in at least one bloody mix-up between Turkish and Bulgarian troops. In these circumstances Bulgaria appealed to Germany, but was deeply chagrined to receive from the Wilhelmstrasse a Delphic utterance which might have been interpreted as an endorsement of Turkish claims. The reason for this was that Germany was then overrunning the Ukraine preparatory to the occupation of Transcaucasia and the penetration of the middle East. For such far-flung projects zealous Turkish cooperation was a prime necessity. Accordingly, Turkey had to be favored in every possible way. As for Bulgaria, she must not embarrass Germany in her march to world dominion.
A third shock was in store. Ever since the spring of 1916 Bulgaria had occupied the Drama-Serres-Kavala districts of Greek Macedonia. In 1916, Greece was clinging to an ambiguous neutrality, but a year later the Entente powers deposed King Constantine, and Greece ranged herself squarely on the Allied side, with a declaration of war against Bulgaria as one of the first consequences. Thereupon Bulgaria urged Germany to allow her definitely to annex the occupied districts and to promise her Saloniki when victory should crown the Teuton-Bulgar arms. But here again Bulgaria discovered that Germany had other fish to fry. Ex-King Constantine and the Greek royalists might yet be very useful to Berlin. Therefore they must not be alienated by giving Bulgaria territories which would render every Greek an irreconcilable foe to Mitteleuropa. Also Saloniki, the great Aegean outlet of central Europe, was far too valuable a prize to be committed exclusively to Bulgarian hands. But Saloniki could be reached from central Europe only across Macedonia. Therefore in the final Balkan settlement there must be reserves regarding Bulgaria's control of the Macedonian railroad system. For that matter, this might have to be applied to Bulgaria's own railroad system, since it was the trunkline from central Europe to the East.
So reasoned the suave German diplomats. The effect upon Bulgarian sensibilities can be imagined. How far removed was this drab reality from roseate dreams of imperial Bulgaria dominating the entire Balkans and treating with Teutonic partners as a respected equal! The grim truth was this: Bulgaria's promised gains were being whittled away according to the shifting exigencies of German policy. Was anything certain for the future? No. Because German interests came first, and the junior colleagues must "do their part." Here once more appeared the Nemesis of Prussian Realpolitik, that sinister heresy the crowning demerit of which is that it is not even "real," since it reposes on shortsighted egoism and disregards those moral "imponderables," good faith, fair-dealing, etc., which weigh most heavily in the end. Having turned the neutral world into enemies, Realpolitik was now ready to turn Germany's allies into neutrals.
Thus by the opening months of 1918 Bulgaria was no longer a contented member of central Europe. Most of her political leaders were profoundly disillusioned, and uncertain as to the future. Of course these political matters were still somewhat veiled from the masses. But meanwhile the Bulgarian peasant had been undergoing a little educative process of his own. German diplomats might ask Bulgaria to make sacrifices. The Bulgarian peasant could answer roundly that this was already the case. For Bulgaria was suffering—suffering in every fiber of her being. When she entered the European struggle in 1915, Bulgaria was still weak from two bloody wars. True, the Bulgarian conscripts had marched gladly enough once more, because they were told that it was a matter of a single short campaign, ending in a speedy peace. But two long years had now passed, and Bulgaria's manhood still stood mobilized in distant Macedonia, while at home the fields went fallow, and the scanty harvests, reaped by women and children, had to be shared with the German. Everywhere there was increasing want, sometimes amounting to semi-starvation. Bulgaria, like Russia, was proving that a primitive agricultural people may make a fine campaign, but cannot wage prolonged modern war.
All this discontent, both above and below, presently focused itself in the parliamentary situation. The opposition groups in the Bulgarian Sobranje steadily gained strength until on June 17, 1918, Premier Radoslavov was forced to resign. Radoslavov had been in power since 1913. He had been the architect of the Teuton-Bulgar alliance and was known to be a firm believer in the Mitteleuropa idea. His successor, Malinov, naturally gave lip-service to the same program, but his past leaning had been toward Russia, and he had never displayed marked enthusiasm for the Teutonic powers.
Of course this change of ministry did not mean that Bulgaria was then ready to make a separate peace with the Entente Allies. Every Bulgarian knew that such an act would mean the abandonment of Bulgaria's whole imperialistic dream and the immediate relinquishment of supremely prized Macedonia. But it did mean that Bulgaria was discontented with her present situation and that she was resolved to take a more independent stand toward her Teutonic allies even though Germany was at the moment in the full flush of her great Western offensive and dreaming of a speedy entry into Paris.
But just a month after Malinov's accession came the dramatic shift of fortune in the West. The German offensive broke down, and the Allies began their astounding succession of victories. Instantly the Balkan situation altered. Bulgaria knew that the spring offensive had been Germany's supreme bid for victory. To fill the ranks for the rush on Paris and the channel ports the last German veterans had been withdrawn from the East. Gone were those field-gray divisions which had stiffened the Macedonian front and kept down popular discontent by garrisoning Bulgarian towns. The peasant voice was at last free to speak, and it spoke in no uncertain terms for an end of the war. Agrarian disturbances increased in frequency. Peace demonstrations occurred in Sofia. In fact, some of these demonstrations were tinged with revolutionary red. Bolshevism, that wild revolt against the whole existing order to-day manifest in every quarter of the globe, had not passed Bulgaria by. Of course there was the army, but the army itself was not immune. By early July, Bulgarian deserters and prisoners taken on the Macedonian front were telling the Allied intelligence officers strange tales—tales of midnight soldiers' meetings at which "delegates" were chosen in true Russian fashion, and which Bulgarian regimental officers found it wisest to ignore. Such was the situation in early summer. By the first days of autumn Bulgaria was cracking from end to end. It was in mid-September that General Franchet d'Esperey, the Allied commander, ordered the Macedonian offensive. Small wonder that within a fortnight Bulgaria had surrendered and retired from the war.
The consequences of Bulgaria's capitulation should be both momentous and far-reaching. In the first place, Turkey's doom is sealed. Cut off from direct communication with the Teutonic powers save by the Black Sea water-route and staggering under her Palestine defeats, Turkey is now menaced at her very heart. By the terms of the recent armistice Bulgaria has agreed to allow the Allies free passage across her territory, including the full use of her railways. This means that the Allies can move through Bulgaria upon Turkish Thrace, the sole land bastion protecting Constantinople. Turkey's military situation is thus hopeless, and it is not impossible that before these lines appear in print Turkey will have followed Bulgaria's example and will have thrown up the sponge.
A second possibility is the liberation of Rumania. The "peace" imposed upon Rumania by the Central powers last spring was one of the most shameless acts of international brigandage in the annals of modern history, and though dire necessity compelled Rumania to sign, it was plain that she would submit to her new slavery only so long as the Teutonic pistol was held to her head. This pistol took the form of a Teutonic army of ten divisions camped upon her soil. But to-day Rumania is thrilling to the great news, and when Allied bayonets begin flashing south of the Danube these heliographs of liberty will light a flame of revolt which second-rate German divisions will be unable to stamp out. With the ground burning under their feet the Teutons will probably have to evacuate Rumania with only the most perfunctory resistance to the advancing Allies.
And southern Russia is in much the same case. To-day it is bowed beneath the Teuton yoke, yet the Teutonic corps of occupation are mere islets lost in its vast immensity and ruling more by prestige than by physical power. But German prestige is crumbling fast, and when Turkey's surrender opens the Black Sea to the Allied fleets, southern Russia, like Rumania, should be in a blaze. From the Ukraine to the Caucasus the land is already seething with disaffection. The Don Cossacks have never been subdued. Will the Germans dare to hold their thin communication lines till the guns of Entente warships are thundering off Odessa and Batum?
Lastly, there is Austria-Hungary. Bulgaria's capitulation opens the way for the liberation of Serbia and an Allied push to the Austrian border on the middle Danube. Beyond lie whole provinces full of mutinous Jugoslavs and Rumanians. For that matter, all the non-German and non-Magyar peoples of the Dual Empire are in a state of suppressed revolt, held down by armies largely composed of their disaffected brethren. Perhaps the Balkan winter may delay the Allied advance, perhaps Germany may find enough troops to stifle Austrian disaffection, but the condition of the Hapsburg realm is at best a desperate one, full of explosive possibilities.
These are the major consequences which seem likely to flow from Bulgaria's surrender. There remains the question of the future attitude of Bulgaria herself. Will she remain a passive spectator of these momentous happenings, or will she, striking in on the Allies' side, do her share toward bringing them to pass? The latter eventuality is more than possible. The Bulgarians, from czar to peasant lad, are realists, not given to vain sacrifices. They see that Germany's game is up and that her Balkan grip is broken forever. They have also been bitterly disillusioned about Mitteleuropa, and must to-day realize that under Mitteleuropa whatever Balkan territories might have been colored "Bulgarian" upon the map, they themselves would have been virtually serfs of a Germany whose idea of empire was the outworn concept of a master race lording it over submissive slaves. With their eyes thus opened, the Bulgarians are in a position to appreciate the Allies' profession of faith with its program of freedom for the smallest peoples and fair-dealing even toward the foe. Imperialistic dreams must of course be banished forever. But solicitude for race-brethren outside Bulgaria's present frontiers is a sentiment which the Allies recognize as whole legitimate and which they are pledged to satisfy either by permitting annexation to the homeland or, where this is impossible owing to superior claims of intervening races, by assuring the unredeemed Bulgars full cultural liberty. The Allies' hope is a Balkan confederation in which its varied races may pull together in common interest and mutual respect instead of rending one another in vain dreams of barren empire achieved through blood and iron. Is it too much to hope that so level-headed a people as the Bulgarians will come to realize that in such a Balkan settlement their lasting interests will be far safer than in a Balkans precariously dominated by a Bulgarian minority holding down a majority of sullen and vengeful race enemies?
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald